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Image: Mayyu Khan/Mohammed Rezuwan.
“The Blind Mother,” an illustration by Mayyu Khan, a Rohingya artist living in a Bangladesh refugee camp, from Rohingya Folk Tales, by Mohammed Rezuwan. 

While we’re on the subject of saving languages (see yesterday’s post), let’s look into how preserving folk tales can help keep a threatened culture from disappearing.

Few cultures are more threatened than that of the Rohingya of Myanmar, and today’s article is about a young folklorist in a Bangladesh refugee camp who is determined to do something about that.

Stephen Snyder has the report at Public Radio International’s The World. “Mohammed Rezuwan is on a rescue mission: The 24-year-old who lives in Cox’s Bazar — the world’s largest refugee camp — is working to save Rohingya traditional stories before a generation of storytellers dies off.

“Rohingya people have lived in the region for over a thousand years, but Myanmar’s government considers them foreigners from neighboring Bangladesh. Over the last four years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been driven out of Myanmar by government troops and local militias. Many now live in dozens of refugee camps.

” ‘We, Rohingya people, have our own culture, tradition. We are on the brink of losing all of them, unfortunately,’ Rezuwan said in a WhatsApp voice message from Kutupalong, one of more than two dozen encampments in Cox’s Bazar, on the coast of Bangladesh.

“The crowded area accommodates families who live in tents and shelters along narrow alleyways. United Nations figures put the exile population in the camp at nearly a million — four times the number of Rohingya still living in Myanmar.

“Rezuwan lives in a bamboo shelter with his wife, his mother, a brother and a sister. The family fled their home in Maung Daw, in the Rakhine district of Myanmar, on Aug. 25, 2017, as their village was set ablaze in a campaign that has forced most Rohingya out of Rakhine.

“ ‘I remember the gunshots ringing out like thunderclaps, the bullets strafing the sky like clouds of hungry locusts,’ Rezuwan wrote in the author’s note of his book, Rohingya Folktales: Stories from Arakan, as told by Rohingya refugees.

“ ‘On that terrible day, my family and I ran to a nearby mountain where we hid for three days before we decided to cross the border to Bangladesh.’

“In 2020, after several years at Cox’s Bazar, he took on the role of folklorist — recording stories passed along in the oral tradition by Rohingya elders.

“ ‘Folk tales are used by Rohingya people to teach morals and lessons to their youngsters,’ he said. ‘I, myself, decided to make a book.’

“Rezuwan speaks his native Rohingya and learned to speak and write Burmese in school, but his English is largely self-taught. He spent a year collecting material for his English-language book, and the online version now includes 19 stories from storytellers in several of Cox’s Bazar’s camps.

Research was no easy task. Rezuwan doesn’t have a car or bike, so he walked, sometimes up to five miles, to meet with each storyteller and record his or her story on the phone. …

“ ‘The hardest part is finding and meeting the people from different sorts of camps,’ Rezuwan said. ‘After all, not everyone has the same talents to remember the stories — just because they are uneducated — and so, finding the right person to tell the story was finding a gem from the ocean.’

“The Rohingya language is primarily spoken, without a standardized written script. Rezuwan translated the stories by playing back his recordings and, word by word, constructing English versions of the tales. He then pasted them into WhatsApp and sent them to his editor and friend, Alex Ebsary, in Buffalo, New York, who corrected grammar and word usage. Ebsary said he intentionally edited the stories with a light touch.

“ ‘Folktales are not a universal language,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘You know, if you read these folktales, some of them are quirky. They’re kind of not even the morals that I would think of when thinking of a folktale.’ …

“Rezuwan said his mother used to tell him the story known as ‘A Hunter and a Flock of Heron.’ The version he collected from Rashid Ahmod, a 60-year-old resident of Kutapalong, was essentially the same story he heard as a boy, he said.

“The story is about a hunter who catches a group of beautiful herons in his net. The herons all try to escape by flying around in all directions, Ebsary explained. Rezuwan said the moral of the story is that birds — and people — can’t manage to go anywhere until they cooperate. …

“​​Since coming to Kutupalong, Rezuwan has organized an educational network where Rohingya children — unable to attend schools — can follow the same curriculum taught in Myanmar. He also works with humanitarian groups as a guide and interpreter.”

Read more here.

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Photos: Mahmud Hossain Opu for NPR
The nonprofit group Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha has a fleet of 23 school boats in Bangladesh. The boats pick up kids along the river, then pull over into the marshy riverbank to hold class.

Kids complain about school when school is a given, but what about when it is hard to access? I have been reading about a fire-ravaged county in California that has no schools right now (story here). California is sure to get it together before long, but what about poor countries with drastic education challenges?

Jason Beaubien reports about Bangladesh at National Public Radio (NPR). “On the Atrai River in the northwest of Bangladesh, a small beige boat is tied up in tall grass that lines the riverbank. The interior of the boat is packed with narrow benches which in turn are jammed with children.

“There are 29 students in this third-grade class and it would be hard to fit any more into the narrow vessel. The kids sit shoulder-to-shoulder facing a blackboard at the back of the boat.

“When the teacher asks for a volunteer to recite a multiplication table, 8-year-old Nila Khatun’s hand shoots straight toward the unpainted ceiling.

“She leads the class in a chant that begins with ‘6 times 1 equals 6’ in Bengali. They end with ‘6 times 9 equals 54.’

“Educators in Bangladesh have a problem. Not only do they face many of the same challenges as teachers in other resource-poor countries — funding constraints, outdated textbooks, overcrowded classrooms — they also have to worry about monsoon rains. Flooding is so common in Bangladesh that students often can’t get to the classroom.

“So one local charity has decided to take the classrooms to the students in the form of schools on boats.

“This boat is one of 23 floating year-round schools in this part of Bangladesh run by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a local nonprofit group. …

“Mohammed Rezwan, the founder of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, grew up in this part of Bangladesh.

” ‘If you visit these areas you’ll find that during the monsoon season they get isolated,’ he says. ‘It becomes very difficult to have the normal life.’ …

” ‘In the rural areas. the parents are mostly concerned with the safety of the girls,’ he says. ‘If they [girls] have to travel a long way to go to school, then the parents would not let them go to school.’ …

“That’s true for the family of third-grader Nila. Her mother Musa Khatun says that if it wasn’t for the floating school, Nila probably wouldn’t be in school at all. …

“Khatun says that during the monsoons the village is only accessible by boat. Their family primarily survives by raising jute in the nearby plains. The long, fibrous plant is used to make burlap bags. Nila’s mother, however, sees a different future for Nila. She says Nila is the smart one of the family. No one in their family has ever gone to college, yet Khatun insists her daughter is going to be a doctor.

“And Nila nods her head enthusiastically.”

More here, including eleven wonderful pictures.

When class is done for the day, the boat putters along the river to drop off its students. 

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Photo: @coryt
American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit with Charity Navigator‘s highest rating, is one of a few organizations helping Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh camps.

With so many languages still in use, I have sometimes wondered how aid workers in refugee camps find people to translate languages that are rare.

Malaka Gharib reports about some of the challenges at National Public Radio (NPR).

“Imagine an aid worker in Bangladesh. Her mother tongue is Chittagonian. She’s trying to help a Rohingya refugee, whose language is similar to hers — but not 100 percent. The refugee tells her gaa-lamani biaram, ‘my body is falling apart.’ Would she know that phrase meant the refugee had diarrhea?

“That’s why a new glossary is being developed. And one of the 180 entries is that Rohingya phrase, indicating that a person is suffering from diarrhea.

“In June, a nonprofit group called Translators Without Borders, in partnership with Oxfam and UNICEF, created a special online glossary for humanitarians working in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. The app, which aid workers can download on their mobile phones, includes terms with translations in five languages spoken in the camps: English, Bangla, Rohingya, Chittagonian and Burmese. …

“A November 2017 study from Internews, a nonprofit group that helps people in low-income settings access news and information, reported that almost two-thirds of the 570 Rohingya refugees surveyed at Cox’s Bazar [a Bangladesh camp] were unable to communicate with aid providers.

“That can be particularly dangerous when it comes to health care, says [Irene Scott, the program director for Translators Without Borders in Bangladesh]. … To create the glossary, Translators Without Borders assembled a focus group of aid workers and refugees to come up with ‘a dictionary list of terms they use at the camps every day and terms that field workers are having trouble trying to communicate,’ says Scott. Then they worked with members of the community and a staff sociolinguist to translate the words into the four languages. …

“Most of the words in this first iteration of the Bangladesh glossary focus on water, sanitation and hygiene. Over the past few months, the camps have faced acute water shortages, putting people at risk of waterborne diseases like cholera, bloody diarrhea, typhoid and hepatitis E. …

” ‘Chlorine tablet’ is an important word for aid workers to clearly translate, says Scott, because they’re asking refugees to put a foreign substance into their drinking water to make it safe to consume. ‘It’s hard to tell a traumatized community to put that tablet in water and drink it.’ …

There are a few unexpected words in the glossary — like ‘poem.’ Rohingya aid volunteers in the camps specifically asked for this word to be added.

” ‘Since Rohingya is an oral language, written communications like fliers or pamphlets [to convey important health information] may not be effective given the lack of a standardized script,’ says Krissy Welle, senior communications officer for Translators Without Borders.

“Rhyming conventions are a key way to transfer knowledge and historical facts in Rohingya culture, explains Eva Niederberger, Oxfam’s community engagement adviser in Cox’s Bazar, in a statement to NPR. So an aid worker might say something like, ‘Here’s a poem that will teach you how to protect yourself from certain diseases. …

” ‘When we talk about language with Rohingya women and men, they’re happy that someone is paying attention to something so crucially important to their cultural identity. For so long they’ve had their rights denied to them. It’s all about respect at the end of the day.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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Here’s an interesting start-up by a couple of entrepreneurs who love to eat. The two women decided to build a business around helping travelers find truly authentic cooking.

According to Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence’s website, “Traveling Spoon believes in creating meaningful travel. We are passionate about food, and believe that by connecting people with authentic food experiences in people’s homes around the world we can help facilitate meaningful travel experiences for travelers and hosts worldwide.

“To help you experience local cuisine while traveling, Traveling Spoon offers in-home meals with our hosts. In addition, we also offer in-home cooking classes as well as market tours as an extra add-on to many of the meal experiences. All of our hosts have been vetted to ensure a safe and delightful culinary experience.

“Traveling Spoon currently offers home dining experiences in over 35 cities throughout Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam, and more countries are coming soon!” More here.

I have no doubt that Traveling Spoon is also boosting international understanding. What a good way to use an MBA! Business school is not all about becoming an investment banker, as Suzanne and Erik would tell you.

Photo: Traveling Spoon
Traveling Spoon founders Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence met at the Haas School of Business.

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Sweden has taken in a lot of refugees from troubled countries, but like the U.S., it sometimes struggles to find the best approach for absorbing the influx.

At the NY Times, Suzanne Daley writes about one Swede who may have found an important way to speed integration, a way that enriches the experience of Swedes and newcomers alike.

“Last year, when Ebba Akerman, 31, was teaching Swedish to immigrants in the suburbs of this city, she ran into one of her students on the train and asked him whether he enjoyed living in her country.

“She found the answer deeply disturbing. The man shrugged, saying his life here was not much different from the one he had left behind in Afghanistan. It became clear to her that most of her students, living in neighborhoods packed with immigrants, had virtually no contact with native Swedes.

“In the months that followed, Ms. Akerman decided to try to change that, calling herself the minister of dinners in charge of the Department of Invitations and using Facebook and Instagram to try to bring individual Swedes and immigrants together for a meal, something like a dating service.

“ ‘We let people into our country, but not into our society,’ Ms. Akerman said on a recent Friday night. … ‘I finally decided that I had to do something. I could be the connector.’ …

“On a recent evening, Ms. Akerman was feeding about a dozen people, including a middle-aged couple from Bangladesh who had brought a chicken dish, a recent arrival from Cameroon with her two children, a Swedish marketing expert, the mother of one of Ms. Akerman’s friends and a young Swedish doctor in training, all of whom had been early participants in her project. All told stories of good times and miscues.

“The marketing expert, Henrik Evrell, said he had served spaghetti Bolognese, the most Swedish dish he knew, to his guest from Ivory Coast. At first they had trouble communicating because his guest’s Swedish was so poor. But soon they discovered that they both spoke French and loved the same Ivory Coast musicians. After eating, they spent the rest of the evening in front of a computer, taking turns pulling up music on Spotify that each thought the other would like.” More here.

Photo: Casper Hedberg for The New York Times
Ebba Akerman set a table on her backyard for a meal that brought Swedes and immigrants together. 

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Global Envision is part of an effort at the nonprofit Mercy Corps “to foster a richer conversation about global poverty.”

Last fall, Global Envision’s Erin Butler set off to investigate technologies that help schools in impoverished parts of of the world.

“For some students, hopping on the school bus is hopping into the classroom. Four communities are using solar-powered mobile classrooms to overcome inaccessibility to the power grid.

“Last week,” writes Butler, “we looked at a bus in Chitradurga, India, that brought modern computer technology to students in energy-poor rural schools through solar power. SELCO, a private energy company, engineered the bus with 400 watts of solar modules, 10 laptops, fans, and lights.

“Circumventing the area’s erratic power supply with its solar panels, this bus provides much-needed modern computer education and exposure to the advantages of solar energy. Motoring through rural villages in Chitradurga since January 2012, the bus has reached ’60 schools and 2,081 children,’ the New Indian Express reported in early September. …

“Where there’s more water than land, boats replace buses, and with rising sea levels, low-income Bangladeshi students have difficulty getting to school altogether.

“Pushed to inaccessible riverside settlements that lack basic infrastructure, students often can’t get to school due to monsoon flooding. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a nonprofit organization started by Mohammed Rezwan, rides the rising tides with his solar-powered floating schools.

“Trained as an architect and personally experienced with soggy school disruptions in Bangladesh, Rezwan rode a brainwave that led him to floating schools. Combining the best of traditional boat design and modern sustainable practices, the organization’s 54 boats have been operating since 2002 and have served over 90,000 families.”

Read about the other solar-powered schools here.

Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/File
Students in Kolkata, India, check out their solar sunglasses as they prepare to watch the transit of Venus across the sun. The sun is being harnessed in India and Africa to power mobile solar classrooms for students.

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Alice Feiring has an interesting story in Newsweek.

She writes that Kazi Anis Ahmed of Bangladesh, the 41-year-old cofounder and president of a company called Teatulia, was getting his doctorate in comparative literature when his father suggested expanding the family media and construction business into tea farming. The location he had in mind was the barren northwest of the country, not far from India’s tea-growing region.

Kazi Anis Ahmed liked the idea but felt strongly that any farm of his should be organic. Additionally, says Feiring, the family’s “mission was to provide jobs to the region. …

“The lack of agricultural tradition proved a blessing because the land was virginal, not ravaged by the government-supported, synthetic-fertilizer-dominated ‘Green Revolution.’ After reading the poetic One Straw Revolution by the master Japanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, Ahmed went one step beyond organic and tried to do low-intervention farming.

“The tea garden functions on minimal irrigation. They installed a plethora of plants next to the tea plants to feed and aerate the soil. What now exists is a breathtaking vision. The barren area has been transformed into an Eden with a resurgence of wildlife never seen before — recently, a pair of monkeys was spotted. The animals had not been seen in the area for decades.”

Read more at the Daily Beast. (Thanks for alerting me to this lovely story, Asakiyume.)

Photograph: Habibul Haque, Teatulia

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